8 Things to Know About Boils

  • Boils Information You Need to Know
    There are all kinds of skin conditions that cause lumps and bumps. The terms for all these types of skin lesions can be confusing—pimples, pustules, cysts, blemishes and boils to name a few. Some of them are relatively harmless, while others are genuinely cause for concern. While boils rarely cause serious complications, you shouldn’t ignore them. Here are some facts about boils you should know, including the difference between a boil vs pimple.
  • 1. Boils are an infection.
    A boil is a bacterial infection of a hair follicle and the tissue surrounding it. The most common cause is Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. It’s normal for these bacteria to be present on the skin. Small skin tears or damage to the hair follicle can allow bacteria entrance to start the infection. The medical term for a boil is furuncle. Clusters of boils that connect under the skin are called carbuncles. Carbuncles can lead to more serious complications, including scarring.
  • 2. Boils are pus-filled.
    Boils typically start out as a firm, red, pea-sized bump that is tender or painful. As it grows, it becomes more painful and fills with pus, which appears as a yellow or white tip. Boils can become quite large, with redness and swelling covering a 2-inch diameter or more. Boils may eventually burst and drain pus. Pimples can look quite similar, but they aren’t infections. Pimples are clogged pores that trap oil, dead skin, and bacteria inside. They usually don’t grow as large or affect surrounding skin. Cysts are usually smooth, sac-like lumps under the skin. They can be hard or soft.
  • 3. Boils can occur anywhere.
    It’s true you can get a boil just about anywhere on your body. But there are places where they tend to occur more often. This includes the face, neck, armpit, breasts, buttocks, groin and thighs. These are areas that are commonly sweaty and experience friction. Friction can create conditions that allow bacteria entry into the skin and hair follicles. But areas without a lot of friction can develop boils too. For example, boils can occur on the eyelid. This is called a stye.
  • 4. Some people are more likely to get boils.
    Just like boils can occur anywhere, anyone can get them. But there are some factors that put certain people at higher risk of developing boils. If you have another skin condition, the skin’s protective barrier may not work as well as it should. This allows infectious bacteria to penetrate more easily. People with weak immune systems are more susceptible as well. Boils are also more common in the elderly, people who are obese, and those with diabetes.
  • 5. You can usually treat small boils at home.
    To heal, boils need to naturally open and drain the pus. Never pick or lance a boil yourself, as this can spread the infection. Instead, coax the boil to drain on its own with warm, moist compresses. Apply them several times a day for 10- to 15-minute intervals. Continue the compresses after the boil opens to encourage full drainage. Cover an open boil with a sterile bandage. Always wash your hands before and after treating the boil. If the boil persists for more than two weeks, see your doctor. It may be necessary to surgically lance the boil.
  • 6. Boils can recur.
    A boil can be a one-time occurrence that heals and never comes back. Unfortunately, some people suffer with recurrent boils. If a boil comes back after treatment, see your doctor. Oral antibiotics may be necessary to clear the infection. Special soaps and skin washes may help prevent recurrences. You should also see your doctor for a boil that is rapidly worsening or if you have a fever. Boils on your face or spine require medical attention too.
  • 7. Boils can be a sign of a more serious condition.
    Small, simple boils usually don’t cause serious complications. But the presence of boils, or boil-like bumps, may be a sign of something more serious, such as hidradenitis suppurativa (HS). Left untreated, HS can cause deep abscesses and tracks of infection under the skin. It can eventually cause severe scarring that limits movement of the affected body part. HS is rare, but it’s important to see a dermatologist if you have clusters of boils or boils that recur. Severe cases of boils can also lead to significant scarring.
  • 8. You can take steps to reduce the risk of boils.
    You can’t always prevent boils. Sometimes, the skin damage that leads to them is too small to see. But practicing good hygiene can help protect against the spread of bacterial skin infections. Clean cuts and sores daily and cover them with clean, dry bandages. Don’t share personal items, such as towels, razors, clothing, uniforms, and sports equipment that touches the skin. And wash your hands often.
Boils Skin Information | 8 Things to Know About Boils
  1. Boils. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. https://www.aocd.org/page/Boils
  2. Boils. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001474.htm
  3. Boils and Carbuncles. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/boils-and-carbuncles/symptoms-causes/syc-20353770
  4. Folliculitis, Boils, and Carbuncles. Johns Hopkins University. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/folliculitis-boils-and-carbuncles
  5. Furuncles and Carbuncles. Merck Manual Professional Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dermatologic-disorders/bacterial-skin-infections/furuncles-and-carbuncles
  6. Hidradenitis Suppurativa. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/hidradenitis-suppurativa-overview
  7. How to Treat Boils and Styes. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/injured-skin/treat-boils-styes
  8. How to Treat the Different Types of Acne. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/DIY/types-breakouts
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Last Review Date: 2020 Apr 8
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